We in Western society frequently latch hold of the concerns of the Third World in a laudable desire to reform, enlighten, and correct the injustices which exists in countries who do not enjoy our same basic freedoms. Though this impulse is meant to bring light to the darkness, we must also be careful not to let our own biases and own paternalistic impulses overshadow the good work we seek to accomplish. When the reform we seek thinly veils our own individual internal struggles, then we are not truly working for unselfish means. However, rather than beating ourselves up when we fall short, we would be wise to forgive our shortcomings and strive to listen more and hector less. It is only with listening and absorbing the complete picture that truly effective change ever comes to be. If short-cuts guaranteed successful outcomes, we'd have colonized Mars by now, viewed a time where same-sex marriage was illegal as unspeakably barbaric and nonsensical, and learned to take for granted a single payer health care system.
The controversy over women who demand the right to wear the Niqāb or the burqu‘ despite laws banning it altogether has become a highly politicized issue in Western Europe and even in our own country. Feminist activists, particularly female feminist activists, have grabbed hold of the head scarf and veil issue as a clear-cut visual example that shows conclusive evidence of brutal Patriarchal oppression. When sexism and anti-feminist offenses are so often disguised and ingrained within a society, the head scarf has become an endearing image to invoke due to its unquestioned visibility. If one takes into account a purely Western point of view, nothing could be a more suitable example of the malicious intent of men harshly imposing their will upon women. In comparing their perceived interpretation of the custom to their own lives and their own hard-fought struggles as women, they have incorporated the practice into a Raison d'être of a particular school of thought. This endearing symbol pushes social justice and personalizes the lack of human rights rightly due to oppressed women through the world. The cause has been so heavily politicized and eagerly embraced that few have felt any need to examine the subtleties that sometimes contradict and frequently complicate any resounding rallying point or slam dunk. The reality, as it so often is, is full of subtle nuances that make any black and white reading much more complicated or even impossible.
For starters, the Niqāb, contrary to what many in the West assume, does not have any historical basis in Islamic law or in the Koran. While one particular passage in the Muslim holy book is often invoked to justify its use, it is worded rather vaguely.
O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters, and the women of the faithful, to draw their wraps over them. They will thus be recognised and no harm will come to them. God is forgiving and kind. [Qur'an 33:59 (Translated by Ahmed Ali)]
The Niqāb began as a suggested means to protect women against the potential nefarious acts of unruly men or as a way to keep Muslim women from feeling self-conscious about their appearance. This originally paternalist, probably unintentionally condescending, but nonetheless well-intentioned purpose was then, much later, incorporated into the rule of law in Muslim theocracy nations like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan when it was ruled by the Taliban. Thus, only when the head scarf and veil was used as a deliberate means of enforcing social control and to perpetuate and concentrate power in the hands of men that it took on the deeply offensive meaning it holds today.
An article of clothing so visible and so emotionally charged rarely makes a dramatic impact purely on the sex of those who wear it. In Egypt, for example, much debate has centered around the wearing of the Niqāb, with one camp who believes that it is an offensive practice that ought to be scrapped altogether and another which acknowledges that it does keep women safe from unwanted sexual advances. In a country where the rights of women are not nearly as progressive as they are in this country, Egyptian women frequently have boundaries broached by overzealous men and are unfortunately privy to unwarranted conduct that in this country would be rightly deemed sexual harassment or, in more extreme circumstances, sexual assault. Despite this, the implication of the Niqāb is predicated on the assumption that men cannot control themselves and as a result they need a man-made buffer to keep their base impulses restrained. The burden of protection, then, falls not on the that-who-would-violate but that-who-might-be-violated. This is a contentious notion even in our own society, where women are routinely instructed to take self-defense classes, carry mace in their purses, told in no uncertain terms where to go or not to go, and provided a laundry list of do's and don'ts in a paternalistic desire to protect their safety.
What this does, however, is treat only the effects, not the causes, of a very complex and highly ancient problem. Shifting the burden to that of the potential rapist or attacker is much less cut-and-dried and a path through the wilderness that has only been partially cleared. Proposing solutions that take into account the variety of complicated, interlocking issues that lead men to perpetrate violence against women, whether that be sexual in nature or not, is what we need more of, that is if this matter is to ever be resolved. We insult not just women if we think otherwise. We also insult men if we imply that one sex possesses some kind of innate, unredeemable barbarism that needs a moat, a stop sign, and a blatant, omnipresent reminder at all times to that screams, "Hands Off!", else baser impulses triumph.
What we need also take into account is that if we are to use any example from other cultures to buttress our own claims, it would be best to understand the whole story before appropriating it for our own ends. Removing the context and subtext from any of our traditions and rituals means that the fullest, most complete interpretation is simply not present. Works of classic literature, for example, are products of their time and thus not best understood unless one first adequately comprehends the currents and motifs that existed then and were in the mind of its author. We would be wise to bone up, do our homework, and above all, listen to the stories and opinions of those who live and work in other countries and other regions of the world before we advance any argument based on insufficient understanding, no matter how well-meaning it might be. Though the White Man's Burden no longer reigns supreme, we still have an unfortunate tendency to push reform measures and use examples to push said reform measures that speak more about our own shortcomings, our own fears, and our own life stories than those we claim to assist. This can be avoided if we will avoid overreaching and oversimplifying, even if the result produced is not nearly as impressive. Most contentious issues, I have found, are too indebted to irony to be anyone's satisfying centerpiece. If we were honest with ourselves and each other, we'd recognize that absolutes are few in this world.